Book Focus: 笔迹 script/ notes by Hong Shu-ying
THING BOOKS [TB]: Hello Shu-ying! To start off, can you give us an overview of your practice and the works you’ve done leading up to the point of 笔迹 script/ notes?
HONG SHU-YING [HSY]: I try to find things that I care about a lot personally, while seeking out motifs that will make it relatable to others, and then finding a way to repackage these observations and reflections such that it’s also interesting because you learn something new along the way. Naturally because of how I grew up, a lot of what I’m looking at tend to be related to Singapore or being a child of Chinese migrants.
Installation view of 临摹 Lapping Emulations. [Photo credits: Hong Shu-ying]
Before the book 笔迹 script/ notes, one of my larger body of works would be my graduating piece called 临摹 Lapping Emulations. For that I was really looking at how it is almost impossible to define your cultural identity because it keeps shifting but at the same time – like with any form of identity – you know what you’re not, you have an inkling of what you are, but you can’t nail it down exactly. So I explored that through food and imagery related to the sea because where my family came from is coastal.
In 笔迹 script/ notes what I’m looking at is the scores that I have accumulated over the years playing in the Chinese orchestra, and also being the scores’ librarian for quite a few years.
As a teenager, I would spend a lot of time on these scores – some of which are older than me – photocopying them, looking at them, sorting through them. It made me have a soft spot for these scores, especially now that we're moving towards iPads and the scores are becoming digitalised. The process becomes streamlined causing a lot of the labour of sharing and copying scores to be lost and hidden behind computer screens.
Working on this project allowed me to put all these thoughts I’ve been having for so many years into a visual outcome. Being able to work with Ming on it – someone who is also very interested in music and very sensitive to things that are made by people or traces that are left behind by people – we got to bounce ideas; she could spot a lot of the blind spots I had and come up with ways to fill the gaps.
TB: I realised your practice is not specific to photography, especially with 笔迹 script/ notes. But you were trained in photography?
HSY: For me, working with process is more important than with photography. I enjoy a process-based approach where I set certain premises and rules and see what comes out of it and how the materials I work with respond to these. So that actually brought me away from photography in the most conventional sense – using a camera to capture something quite similar to what you’ll encounter in real life.
But for 笔迹 script/ notes, I felt like the original material already had a lot so to photograph them wouldn’t really do anything more. I wanted to work with the material directly because a lot of it has to do with the quality of it being handwritten by so many different people, so scanning became the most intuitive way to engage with the source material which came from music scores.
If you look at the first spread, it actually features two scores overlaid upon each other, showcasing the source material. The cover is a cropped score with cut outs showing parts of the annotations. This is similar to how I worked with the materials – focusing on parts that were picked out as good examples of the scores that were also visually interesting so they look like snapshots by themselves, almost. These were then collaged into the compositions you see in the book.
I didn’t want it to be something that would look too musical or technical such that it would look too foreign to the viewer and they’d feel like they couldn’t understand it. It had to look a bit more pictoral, not necessarily adhering to things like the orientation of the symbol. For me that’s more interesting. This is the type of freedom I can get with some photographic techniques but not all the time if I’m working directly with a camera. I have works that are photo-based because that’s a technique I’m acquainted with, but it’s not something I would stick with purely.
TB: Was it intentional for the markings to look like brush strokes?
HSY: Kind of…? The scores were originally written in pen, sometimes brush-like pens, and the annotations are made in pencil. When we printed it we wanted to retain that kind of texture so we amped up the density of the silver ink so that it would look closer to graphite and not too shiny. Heavier ink densities tend to look darker which causes the metallic/shiny quality to be reduced. For the blacks we also pushed the ink density beyond the usual range so it looks like it’s been repeatedly photocopied. But we didn’t actually do anything to the marks, stylistically.
TB: 笔迹 script/ notes was part of the A Different Reading by THEBOOKSHOW where an artist is paired with a designer. How much artistic control was shared between the both of you?
HSY: It was the first time I got to work with a designer. Working with Ming was a lot of to-and-fro. I knew what I wanted in terms of the big picture, and she knew what the possibilities were. I would tell her what qualities I want to highlight, and she would advise on things like offset printing, playing with the form of the book, and how people usually engage with different types of information. Because she was so heavily involved in the creation process, she could also give her feedback. For example, it was her idea to incorporate the glossary into the book – which initially started as a document that I made for her so she could better understand the work. It was very nice because we have a very good rapport and our pace was very much in sync also.
Personally, I would only dare to play with the form of the book and be very conservative with the layout because my sensitivities and technical design skills are just not very well-developed. So having Ming so present and involved in the process allowed me to experiment with different possibilities also. One of the conversations that came up during the project was this idea of control, because there’s a mix of dynamics between the artist and the designer. Ming had a very good grasp of balance between her own creative input and ideas from the both of us. Being able to work with someone who has good control of the ability to not let the design part overtake the actual intent of the work gives a nice tension.
You also realise that the creative process doesn’t just stop after you package your files [for offset printing]. That’s something that we, as artists, don’t consider because we either print our own things with our own printer, or we work with [commercial] printers that we already trust so there’s not much range to consider.
I also want to add that it’s nice to be able to work with books because then people can touch the work and encounter something that carries an artwork. You can pick it up, hold it, look at it on your own, in your own space. Compared to walking into a gallery where you’re super intrigued by the material but you can’t touch it. That difference in engagement is very nice.